Monday, October 16, 2017

An Inaccurate List



When Capt. John Smith wrote home about his experiences in the New World, he mentioned that the natives ate “a small dog called a raccoon.” Apparently, the little masked animal was unfamiliar to the Englishman and he mistook it for a dog. In Algonquian, the animal is called “aroughcun” and that sounded like “raccoon” to Capt. Smith. The raccoon either did not inhabit the British Isles or they were extremely rare.

Raccoons were apparently quite rare as well in Southwest Arkansas early in the 20th Century. An elderly alderman named Thurston on the Washington, Ark. city council said he had never seen one as a boy, even though he and his brother trapped all the time. They would provide meat for the family and neighbors, cure the skins and send them to a place in St. Louis, along with a list on notebook paper of what they were sending. Not many days later, they would receive a check in the mail from the fur company up there. He said earning money that way was better than a paper route.

They sold some of the meat to a Mrs. Black, who ran a local restaurant. One winter day, she told Thurston and his brother that if they ever trapped a raccoon, she would give them a quarter for the meat. (Most carcasses went for a dime). She said her customers had been asking for raccoon.

Well, one night in the wee small hours, the brothers heard the dogs cut loose down in the bottoms below their house. Their father got out of bed, loaded his double-barrel 20 and said, “I got to go shut them dogs up. If I don’t shoot whatever it is they got treed down in yonder, ain’t none of us going to get any sleep.” Soon, the brothers heard both barrels go off and their father came trudging back. They heard him throw something in a box on the back porch where they kept game away from the dogs. He came by their room and said, “Boys, there’s a coon in the box y’all can have for the hide.”

At daybreak, they skinned the animal, took the meat to Mrs. Black, received their quarter and cured the hide. They included that skin in a bundle they sent to St. Louis and entered it on the notebook paper list: two possums, five squirrels, one coon. Soon they got a larger-than-expected check back in the mail along with a letter, part of which stated, “Boys, there was no raccoon hide in your recent shipment. There were two opossums, five squirrels and one fox.”

They never told Mrs. Black, because she bragged that her customers loved that coon they brought her and that if they got another one, she would give them a half-dollar for it. The moral of Thurston’s story, I guess, is “A fox by any other name would taste as sweet.”

Thurston passed away recently and we miss him on the city council. He was a responsible, very wise citizen who had a wonderful childhood. He was also a great storyteller.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Bumble Jackets

Scrambled eggs, crispy bacon and cinnamon rolls heated in bacon grease—that was our scoutmaster’s specialty and we loved it. Breakfast was my favorite meal of the day anyway and still is. After we cleaned up the utensils, we had a couple of hours to straighten up the campsite and loaf around before the mountain hike. I do not remember just where we camped but it was near Mena, Ark. I remember that because I mispronounced the name of the town as “men-ah” instead of “mee-nah” and got laughed at.

When Timmy, the youngest scout on the trip, got his gear all squared away, he ambled down to the lake. We could see him from the camp. At first, he skipped rocks. Then he waded. Then he was hollering for help. Johnny, who was the scout closest to the lake at the time, shot like lightning down to the water, jumped in fully clothed and pulled the sputtering Timmy out. He got a badge for that one and much adulation from Timmy’s family. By the next year, Timmy was a strong swimmer.

“Timmy, do you feel like going on the hike now? You don’t have to,” the scoutmaster said. “Sure, I’m fine. Let’s hike!” he replied. So, we took off on a very long and steep climb up the mountain. When we got about a mile up, a man who called himself the mountain man was on the descent. One look at his energetic blue eyes with little bitty pupils told me he had mental issues. His first utterance was, “You boys look out for bumble jackets. They’s a bunch of bumble jackets up here in this mountain. You don’t want to get stung by no bumble jacket.” The scoutmaster called for a break and we sat cross-legged on the edge of the road. The mountain man had an audience. He held forth about a painter cat. “How do you spell that?” the scoutmaster wanted to know. “P-a-n-t-h-e-r,” he replied. Then he said there was a bigfoot about, though he spent most of his time over on the Kiamichis in Okla. When he got tired of lying to his gullible audience, the mountain man ambled on, calling back over his shoulder, “You boys watch out for them bumble jackets.”

We did not see a single bumble jacket but Johnny found a suspicious footprint—huge with gnarled toes. It was an old print, so we assumed bigfoot was in the next state over. I guess the old fellow meant yellowjacket or bumblebee. Or, maybe he imagined a hybrid buzzing about the mountains. As to the bigfoot, I now know what I did not know then--that he lives around Fouke, Ark.

I would not take a pretty for my boy scout experiences. They were fun but—how do I say this?—too supervised. I preferred the camping trips my friends and I experienced without adult interference. My friends and I even found an old abandoned house back in the woods that had a still-functioning fireplace. We made ourselves believe the former occupants still lurked around the corners and we could hear them faintly conversing late at night. Johnny swore he heard a voice say, “We got company, Mable.”

Monday, May 1, 2017

Losing Air

The back tire of my bicycle was slowly losing air, so, today I tackled the job of installing a new tube and tire on the wheel. I am a big guy with a big ride, a 29-inch mountain bicycle. I could have just patched the tube and planned to do so until I noticed how worn the knobby tire was. It was down beyond the treads. Only a thin layer of rubber remained between tire and tube. I keep an extra tire wadded up in a shoe box along with some fresh tubes with Presta valves. (The old spring-loaded Schrader valves are harder to pump up).

Because the new tire had been so cramped up so long, it was difficult to make it round and receptive to a tube again. It is no fun giving a vigorous and seemingly fruitless massage to an inanimate hunk of rubber made in China. But, at length, I managed to get the flabbily pumped tube inserted into the more-or-less rounded tire. After struggling with the derailleur (it is a 21-speed bicycle) I got the wheel back where it belongs and pumped to 65-pound perfection—ready to roll, right? It was then I noticed how out of true my wheels were.

Out with the spoke wrench. Truing wheels is a delicate art and quite satisfying. First, one must mark the place(s) on the rim where the wheel leans this way or that while rolling. Then, tightening a spoke or two on one side and/or loosening one or two on the other side will bring the wheel into alignment. It usually takes me several stabs at this to get it perfectly true. I know they have more technical devices to guide them at bicycle shops, but I am a do-it-yourselfer.

As I made my wheels true, Truth broke through. I realized that there are elements in my life I should tighten up or loosen up to be true to myself. I thought of Polonius’ speech to his college-bound son Laertes in Hamlet. He advises that if the lad is true to himself, he cannot be false to anyone. I think that is generally true. Shakespeare’s irony is that Polonius himself is not true to himself or anyone else. His is one of those “do as I say not as I do” parental speeches. Leadership by example is the only kind that really works. Leaders should be exemplary. Things break down when people start feeling superior to their leaders.

Being true to myself means that I need to tighten up on my tendency to fictionalize. I am a little like William Faulkner, who said, “Being a convincing liar, I have trouble telling the truth.” Of course, sometimes fiction can be truer than fact, as in parables. Conversely, I need to loosen up on being so judgmental—of myself as well as others. I understand that if I judge too severely, I set myself up to get the same in return. Have you noticed the reciprocity of ethics?

Now, fully pumped and completely true, I shall ride off into the beautiful May sunset.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Interesting Visit

The wise old man was napping on our side porch when we got home from church Sunday. “Happy Resurrection Day,” he said, standing to greet us. My wife had prepared ham, potato salad and barbecue beans and the three of us feasted. After lunch, he said, “Well, Dan, I got a little nap before lunch, so I am ready for a walk. Let’s go look at the magnolia tree.” That huge tree, planted in 1839, fascinated him. He walked all around under it, looking up. When he was satisfied, he said, “Would you like to sit on the Royston log house back porch and visit awhile?” Of course, I said yes.

Half reclining with his back against the log wall, he cut a tiny piece from a tobacco plug and placed it in his cheek. “Did y’all have a good church meeting this morning, Dan?” I told him all about it and he listened intently. “You know, Dan, I have been thinking about Easter. You know that passage in Micah 6 that says the Lord requires justice, mercy and humility?” I told him I did remember. “Well, Jesus exemplified each one of those qualities.”

He went on to explain that justice was a reciprocal concept in scripture. He said we should be fair to others if we want fair treatment ourselves. He further said that God’s sense of justice was much different from man’s. As evidence, he cited the crucifixion—satisfying God’s just requirements through an event that seems so unjust to us. “By his death,” he said, “we get life. How is that fair by human standards? Judging someone else guarantees that we will get the same kind of judgment from God.”

The wise old man leaned forward to spit through a crack in the floor and continued. He explained that mercy was reciprocal as well. Jesus said merciful people get mercy in return. He also explained that the scriptures are clear about forgiveness. He said we should forgive others to receive forgiveness ourselves. “Jesus said that just after he taught the Lord’s prayer.”

Finally, he explained that humility gains elevation. I do not remember all the examples he gave, but the one that stuck with me was that the ultimate humility was coming from heavenly mansions to lowly life on this planet to be betrayed, denied and unjustly tortured to death. But, for the joy set before him, he endured it. Seems like he said his joy was in ransoming the likes of us to be with him forever.”

“That will preach,” I said. “Well, Dan, I did not mean to get preachy. I just wanted to let you know I have been thinking about the reciprocal nature of our faith. Open rewards come from secret deeds.”

“Sir,” I said, “where have you been and where are you going. “I do not have much of a plan for my journey from here. I have a girlfriend in Doyline and I may go stay at her lake house for a spell. I have been to Quito and Havana. When I came back up here, I lived under the bridge in Texarkana until this morning. I caught a ride with an Episcopal priest who looked like Vincent Price.”

Monday, April 10, 2017

Siblings and Accents

The recent “national siblings day” led me to take stock of my spread-out family. I have a 96-year-old big brother Stanley, who lives in Atlanta. He flew 50 missions in a B-17 in WWII. Now a retired colonel, Stanley sings made-up songs all day and up into the night. Amazingly, the lyrics often rhyme and have varying pitches and tones, most of them with substantial country influence. As a young man, he and my sister Gloria, a few years younger than he, sang with The Sunshine Boys on stage and radio in northern Louisiana. My brother Curtis, just a few years older than I, used to join their act. He had a cute lisp and would run on stage while they were performing crying, “I can’t see; I can’t see.”  They would ask, “What’s wrong, Curtis,” and he would reply, “I got my eyes shut.”

Curtis followed in Stanley’s military piloting footsteps, but, unfortunately, as an Air Force lieutenant, he was killed in a B-47 crash in Lockburn, Ohio in 1960. I was also in the Air Force at the time and flew home from Germany on emergency leave to be at the funeral.

Gloria fudged on her age and went into the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) not long after our father’s death and a failed marriage she entered much too hastily and quite young. You see, Gloria was only 14 when our father died. Mother was a poverty- and grief-stricken widow, pregnant with me. Curtis was only five. She made a good soldier and learned some stenographic skills that sustained her throughout her life. She died in 2004.

She did not feel like moving back to the glorious southland after her enlistment was over, so she got a clerical job in the Boston, Massachusetts water company. When I was eight, Mother and I took a trip up to Boston to visit her. She had a cold water flat near Beacon Street. Boston was like another country with an almost foreign language. People said “cah” for “car,” “Bahston” for “Boston” and they pronounced the word “water” very clippingly, as if they were afraid the word would hurt their lips. It was even stranger out in Common Park where the squirrels would come sit on your knee and beg for peanuts and the pigeons were not scared of people. What surprised me most was that Gloria not only understood the language up there but she could speak it. When she moved back south, it took her awhile to speak normally again.

I vowed that I would avoid living up north and that if I had to move there I would never change my accent. I ate those words down in south Florida, where most of the inhabitants are from the northeast. After just a year of working at a university down there, I started speaking more rapidly and saying “Aye” for “I.” When I lived in Ohio, I kind of used a midwestern tone while out shopping so folks wouldn’t say, “Aye big your pahdin?”

Monday, April 3, 2017

Cherokee Princess Grandmother

While I was dean at a south Florida university, my chief academic officer and I were invited to a high tea on Palm Beach at an exclusive club. I had never been to a high tea before and was surprised when no one was having tea. There were many potential donors there and we wanted our university to look good so wealthy people looking for a worthy charity might consider us. I got a haircut, trimmed my whiskers, donned my black suit and even wore socks to the event. (Socks are a rarity in south Florida).

My place card at the main tea table was between my boss and an extravagantly dressed and bejeweled Southern belle of about 40. She quickly discerned from my accent that she was sitting next to a fellow Southerner and conversation turned to things that interest people from our region: food, architecture, interior d├ęcor and family. We had a lovely conversation much to the pleasure of my boss. That is, until she brought up that she was doing research on her Cherokee Princess grandmother.

I should have kept my mouth shut, but I mentioned that, as Dr. Jeter, an anthropologist from the University of Arkansas, had recently written, the “My-grandmother-is-a-Cherokee-princess” myth is prevalent amongst Southerners. She looked stunned and my boss turned red. I quickly tried to recuperate by saying, “But, your grandmother may well have been one. I am not saying that.” But that did not seem to help. The lady pledged a considerable amount to our university anyway, but I got a good talking to on the trip back to campus.

My own mother told my siblings and me that our long-deceased grandmother was a Cherokee and I believed it somewhat until I spit in a tube and got my DNA results indicating that I am mainly Scandinavian with no Native American blood whatsoever. That led me to ponder what makes people want to be related to Native Americans. Could it be because of a literary stock character who is innately good because he or she has not been corrupted by civilization? Queequeg, the South Sea tribal chief of Moby Dick, is an example. The main character, Ishmael, finds Queequeg’s innate goodness so attractive that he concludes it is better to room with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian. Tonto and Little Beaver are popular culture versions of the innately good uncivilized person. And, there are numerous westerns in which the female Native American, like Pocahontas, saves the day. The movie Dances With Wolves certainly contrasts the corruption of civilization with the nobility of the native.

In our region, there are many people who are genuinely descended from Native Americans. One of the finest friends I ever had, a truly noble guy called Woody, is full blood Choctaw. Many of us of predominate European lineage wish for a tad of native incorruption. I hope the lady in Palm Beach found out that her grandmother was, indeed, a Cherokee princess. I further wish that I could forget that episode in my academic history.

Monday, March 27, 2017


A long time ago, I worked for a couple of carpenters. One of my jobs was to construct frames for pouring concrete. Every time we needed a slab, I had to first build a sturdy frame, complete with strong wire to keep the sides from bulging and then lay in reinforcing rebar. When the concrete truck came, I held my breath until I was assured that the frame would hold. It always did. As soon as the concrete set, I tore down my handiwork and snipped the snag-ends of wire.

Such a frame works as a metaphor for integrity. If our “frame” or worldview is sound (well-constructed, reinforced and wired up snugly) what is poured in will adhere and set satisfactorily. In other words, integrity means having a strong framework to hold true to who we are. Without such a framework, we would be scooping up splattered and meandering ideas, never satisfied with the results. For me, the Christian worldview—that God made us and has an eternal purpose for our existence—is the only satisfactory one. Without it, I would be scooping up splattered and meandering ideas. We see a lot of scooping in contemporary thought. Many newspaper editorials come to mind as well as the pontification of other media gasbags.

Like Daniel of old, we live in an alien kingdom where people are put off by our worldview. If we can have discussions on a level above twitter and texting, we often find that even the scoopers have a Christian worldview imbedded so deeply as to be invisible—to them at least. It takes a lot of faith to be an atheist—faith in your own reasoning power.

Daniel did not want to eat the food of Babylon because he suspected it had been sacrificed to idols, so he worked it out that he and his friends ate only vegetables. His three friends did not want to bow down to the huge idol Nebuchadnezzar had erected because their worldview told them to bow only to the Hebrew God. They were thrown into a furnace for not bowing but came out smelling sweet. The Chaldeans worked it out with Darius to issue an irrevocable law that people could only pray to him, knowing full well that Daniel prayed openly every day facing Jerusalem. For this, he was thrown to the lions but came out unscathed. His accusers were then thrown in and they were not so fortunate.

Similarly, our Christian worldview means that we stick to our guns. But it means more than that. We should love God, love our neighbor, teach others about our faith, obey the commands of Jesus based on love, take care of the poor, widows and orphans. Micah 6:8 tells what God requires: Be merciful, love justice, walk humbly with your God. Do no harm by any word or deed; do good wherever there is need; remain attentive to the Bible; stay in love with God. This later is not easy—for me it requires fellowshipping with likeminded believers in the context of church.